St. John (Maximovich) of Shanghai and San Francisco – Sermon on the Theophany.
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
As we celebrate the Epiphany, we remember how God revealed himself as the Trinity, that Jesus appeared to the people as Christ. Where did Christ appear Hos did He begin His mission? Did He enter a great city and reveal Himself in His glory? Did He ascend a great mountain as many thousands of people beheld Him from below, wondering at the miracle? No! Christ went into the wilderness, to the Jordan River, where John was baptizing the people. John preached repentance, and called upon sinners, in a sign of repentance, to be baptized in the Jordan. And it was as a sinner that Christ came and asked for baptism. Yet He had no sin. John was afraid: “I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering said unto him, suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Adam sinned through pride, he wished to elevate himself, to become like God. But Christ cam to fulfill the truth of God, to correct Adam’s pride through humility. Christ entered the water and received baptism from His servant. Trembling, John placed his hand upon his God and Master, and Christ humbly bowed His head. Christ’s humility opened up the heavens, and the voice of God the Father boomed forth: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). This is My Son, Who humbled Himself in order to fulfill My will, My true Son, Who humbles Himself in order to elevate mankind. Christ’s meekness opened the heavens and revealed to mankind the Trinitarian nature of God.
But why did He do this in water, and not someplace else? Let us remember how God created the universe. When God created the heavens and the earth, “the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). God then divided the firmament and the waters, but water remained everywhere, for it is required for all life. Man cannot live without water, nor can any creature; there is water (moisture) in the air; every handful of earth contains water; there is water in rock, even though we cannot see it, and when God wishes, water emerges from it, as it did with Moses. “The earth is the LORD'S, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods” (Psalms 24:1-2). “For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished (2 Peter 3:5-6).
When man sinned, he provoked God’s wrath not only upon himself but upon all of nature. Man is the crown of God’s Creation; he was given dominion over nature. When the king—mankind—became the enemy of the King Himself, his kingdom became the kingdom of the enemy. Punishment was brought down not only upon mankind, but upon nature as well. We know that “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” (Romans 8:22). But creation submitted to chaos not willingly, “but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope” (Romans 8:20). For this reason, the forgiveness of the guilty will emancipate all of creation from servitude to death. This mortal nature will end and it will be transformed to a new heaven and a new earth, “wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Peter 3:12-13). In order to facilitate this transformation, to prepare nature for immortality, which will take place after the Terrible Day of Judgment, Christ came into the waters of the Jordan.
Immersing Himself in the Jordan River, Christ not only sanctified the waters of the Jordan, but the very nature of water, as the Church exclaims in song: “Christ appeared in the Jordan to sanctify its waters” (troparion on Epiphany Eve). And since water is found everywhere, then by sanctifying the water, Christ sanctified all of Creation, the entire universe. Christ prepared all of nature to experience the blessed consequence of sacrifice which He came to offer. But this is not all. He gave water the power to wash away the sin of mankind. Christian baptism is rebirth, forgiveness of all sins. With water, God punished the sins of early man and destroyed mankind in the Flood. Now, with water, God saves mankind in the Mystery of Baptism.
And so Christ crushed the head of the serpent in the waters of the Jordan, as we sing in church, the serpent which had deceived Adam and Eve, but was vanquished with the humility of Jesus; He revealed to mankind that God is Trinity, He sanctified the water, and through water He sanctified all of creation, preparing it to receive the words of forgiveness and immortality. And holding another victory over the devil in the wilderness, Christ went to prepare mankind for His future Kingdom, and began His ministry with the words: “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17), or, as the Gospel also says: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Until then, John the Baptist preached repentance, preparing the path for the Lord. Now the Lord Himself exclaims “Repent!” This word is addressed not only to those who lived in the time of Christ, but to all people in all places and ages. We hear this word in the Gospel. Even before the days of celebrating the Epiphany are over, the word reminds us that the time for repentance is near.
Let us be attentive! These are not the words of a prophet or an angel, but of the Lord Himself. Let us repent, and as Lent approaches, let us try to defeat our passions and receive forgiveness for our sins, so that we may spend eternity in the immortal Kingdom which the Lord has prepared for us. Amen!